Stanley Plumly, Maryland’s former poet laureate and a respected University of Maryland faculty member who taught creative writing, died of complications of multiple myeloma April 11 at his Frederick home. He was 79.
"Being able to speak with a certain amount of clarity what's in your mind and in your heart seems to me to be inseparable from having a happy life,” he said in 2009 when appointed to the state honor by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley. Mr. Plumly was an expert on the 19th century British poet John Keats and two of his contemporaries, the artists John Constable and J.M.W. Turner.
Born in Barnesville, Ohio, he was the son of Herman Plumly, who worked in a family lumber business and later was an oil company foreman, and his wife, Esther Welbaum. He spent part of his childhood in Winchester, Va., and graduated from high school in Piqua, Ohio. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Wilmington (Ohio) College and studied for a doctorate at Ohio University.
“For years he had read poetry, but at 19, he began writing little poems,” said his wife, Margaret Rose Forian. “He thought they were terrible. He went on to be a disciplined writer. Every morning he was in his chair at 5.”
His prose works are elegant, circular, deep and brilliant meditations on his central preoccupation, immortality and art.
Jill Bialosky, editor at W. W. Norton
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His first book of poetry came out in 1970. He also taught at the University of Iowa, Princeton University, Columbia University and the University of Houston before coming to College Park.
His poetry often referenced his childhood and adolescence in Ohio, where he observed its agriculture, trees and birds. He was also a scholar with a particular interest in Keats and other early 19th century Romantic poets.
He arrived at the University of Maryland, College Park in 1985 and began a graduate creative writing program — a master’s degree in fine arts. He worked until several months ago. He was Maryland’s poet laureate from 2009 to 2018.
“I knew the scholar and poet, Stanley Plumly, first as his student at Ohio University when I was nineteen, as a graduate student at the University of Iowa in my twenties, and decades later as his editor at W. W. Norton for his last three books of poetry,” Jill Bialosky said in an email. “As a teacher, he was unrelenting in his concern for the poem itself and its authenticity. As a poet, he is a master of syntax and formal elegance. His poems are profound, beautiful and moving; a landscape poet, if you will, seeking truth and the sublime in human connection and the natural world.
“His prose works are elegant, circular, deep and brilliant meditations on his central preoccupation, immortality and art. It was a privilege to know him and to work with a poet of his distinction.”
Said Michael Collier, a University of Maryland colleague and a past Maryland poet laureate: “As a teacher he was encouraging to his students, but serious at the same time. He would tell students, ‘Just do the work.’ He said that writing was more than sitting at a desk. You need to think about art and literature. He could be old school, but he had a good understanding of a young writer’s soul.’”
Mr. Collier, of Catonsville, also said, “He was really a consummate teacher and one of the great writing teachers.”
In addition to his works of poetry, Mr. Plumly wrote of the English landscape painters Constable and Turner in his 2018 book, “Elegy Landscapes.”
A Washington Post review said of the book, “With a keen eye for artistic composition and in language that easily alternates between analytical and lyrical, Plumly explores the two artists’ canons through the prism of their lives, all the while asking: What makes their work unique and lasting?”
Mr. Plumly wrote in the book, “Constable’s genius invites a vision of what was … and Turner’s genius demands a vision of what will be. Each artist found a way to incorporate narrative into their pastoral scenes, transcending traditional Arcadian visions.”
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Mr. Collier, said: “As a person, you couldn’t find a better one. He loved good food and wine. He had an infectious personality. After being around Stanley, you felt you were capable of doing the important work you were trying to do. He empowered you.”
Survivors include his wife of nine years, two stepdaughters, Elizabeth Stevenson of Longmont, Colo., and Mackenzie Sconyers of Crawfordville, Fla.; and a sister, Susan Clement of Texas. His marriages to Hope Plumly and poet Deborah Digges ended in divorce.